The Inquisition: Splitting the Party

A split! Thanks to flickr user Composite Character. CC BY-NC 2.0

Sometimes I can tell when I begin writing a post whether it’s going to be long and ponderous or a markedly quick burst of text. (Ok, let’s be honest, it’s almost always the former, despite my best intentions for the latter.) While I generally attempt to be succinct, from time to time there comes a topic such as today’s, which promises to be divisive. Yes, it’s the age old question: should we split the party?

Last weeks’ article, still possessing the oven-fresh smell, dealt with the idea of the Trouble Player, and one particular behavior that frequently led to a player being Trouble was the isolation or fragmenting of the party. One might be led to believe, then, that the author generally does not favor splitting the group. I say thee nay, and point out that the selfish behavior of the Trouble Player is the root of the side-quests or solo adventures in this situation. For today, we’ll deal solely with legitimate reasons to split the party, the natural (or unnatural) ways they arise, whether dividing the players is a good idea, and how to do it if you do decide to go that route.

A good deal of ink has been spilled regarding this well-worn topic, and with good measure; it’s something that has plagued GMs and players alike since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons. Just Google the phrase “split the party” and you’ll undoubtedly find dozens of gamer blogs dealing with this exact topic. I read through a bunch of them, hoping to both hone my own arguments and thoughts concerning this behavior, but also to survey whether my thoughts were just the same re-hashing of what everyone already thinks (the prevailing opinion, as with most things, is: don’t overdo it, it can work in the right situation, with the right group of players, yada yada yada). I hope you find my advice more specifically useful.

Why The Party Splits

Party splitting can be a very natural thing for a group. In any situation where you have 4-6 players, it’s common to have characters of like skills or backgrounds group together for small tasks, such as teaming up in combat, but that quickly grows to out of combat tasks, and then even to entire chunks of time.

Story-Based Reasons

Stealth: Some characters have it, others really don’t. One of the more challenging archetypes to play in an RPG is the stealthy one. Since you need to not be seen, a lot of your advantages fade away when the cleric in the clangy armor with the shining mace is standing right next to you. So, a lone character will often strike off on his own. In this case, maybe two or three characters have some proficiency in remaining hidden and will scout out ahead.

Tactics: Sometimes it just makes sense to use a pincer maneuver, cover all the exits, surround, fan out, or flee in different directions. It happens.

“There’s not enough time!”: You need to both stop the bomb from blowing up the police station and apprehend the bad guy at the same time. You need to cover a lot of investigative ground in a short amount of time. In RPGs, we often get short-sighted and forget that events can happen concurrently, and if we want to participate in those events, we might have to split the party.

Simple disagreement: When one half of the party believes in one course of action and the other half believes in another, they might come to loggerheads and just decide to split (heh) the difference and do both. Maybe the skills of party members are particularly well-adapted to certain situations (see stealth) and breaking up the group into smaller groups focusing on separate tasks.

GM purpose: Maybe you’re playing a horror game and need to deliver a scare to an isolated group of players. Maybe you’re playing a paranoia game with ninja-notes and need to instill deep-seated doubt by taking one group aside for a few minutes. Maybe you need to have a character separated in order to plant something on him or her. For whatever reasons, the GM may come up with a need to separate or isolate certain characters or subsets thereof.

Simple sense-making: It’s funny how often I come across this one. You’re a bunch of gritty noir heroes tracking down a serial killer. You have Joe Grist on the ropes and have cornered him in his warehouse, now it’s time for the interrogation. So SIX PC’s barge into the room to ask him questions, seemingly at random. Or, you’re all doing some background research on an eldritch mystery and start with a little old lady. 5 investigators of all walks of life converge on her house. Or a whole team heads to the library and researches the same thing (all of them rolling the same skill check, no doubt). I refer you back to the suspension of disbelief, and how these types of situations really challenge it. Sometimes I find it hard as a GM to just hand-wave; it seems totally reasonable that a little old lady might be flustered by 5-6 unannounced guests (you would be too!). So it seems to make sense to have the nice girl who looks like her daughter talk to the old lady, have the professor go to the library, and have the tough guys interrogate the gangster.

Out of Game Reasons

Player Absence: Seems self-explanatory. It’s quite easy to say, “yes, well, Trelgar and Hanneirbrack go off on a little sidequest this week.” It can be a bit trickier to just have those two guys show up in the middle of a dungeon the following week, though.

Trouble Player Behavior: see last week!

When Splitting Goes Bad

Now we get to the reasons why everyone always advises you to never split the party!

Lack of Screen Time

Imagine this. You’re playing an RPG. There are 4 players and the GM. Let’s say that at best, each player and GM gets 20% of “screen time” which is you actively doing stuff. It’s more likely the GM spends a lot more time than everyone else, responding to others actions, taking NPC actions,providing exposition, and the like, so her cut is probably more like 40%. That leaves 60% of screen time for the players, which, divided four ways, leaves us with 15% of the time for each player.

Yes, for each roleplaying game, you’re probably only actively “playing” for 10% to 15% of the time. Sure, you’re listening to the story, thinking about what you’re going to do next, pondering options and choices, trying to stay in character, translating how you might react to a situation to how your character might react.

When you split the party, you reduce the already low amount of screen time your character gets.  Since the GM has to respond to multiple groups, her screen time increases, thereby reducing that of the players. Not to mention that whenever one group is playing, the other group basically just has to sit there and wait.

And that’s the most challenging part of playing: knowing that you can’t do anything at all. As much as it sucks to be paralyzed, or unconscious, or enchanted, or otherwise without control of your character, it’s especially frustrating to not have control of your character because you’re not on screen and instead waiting for someone else. Many of us already have trouble keeping focused during games in a world with iPads, smartphones, laptops, easily accessible video games, TV, etc. It’s simply hard to pay attention or to even care when you don’t have a direct impact on what’s going on.

It’s a Nightmare of Tedium for the GM

It can be hard enough to keep track of the characters and what they’re doing when they are all together. Now split up your one group into two or three?

Things get lost in the shuffle. Actions are forgotten. It’s hard to keep track of what events are going on concurrently. Have the rogue and ranger reached the back door by the time the smelly orc is subdued by the paladin and fighter?

Splitting up the party just makes things more difficult for everyone around.

And Yet

It makes sense.

It’s fun.

You’re a bit more on your own or in a smaller group, so you have more of a chance to shine, even if time is limited.

So, how do we make it work?

There’s no surefire solution to making split-parties work. One of my biggest problems with a game like earlier editions of Shadowrun or Spycraft was that there seemed to be little interactivity; the roles were so hyper-specialized that there wasn’t really a way to work together, just a bunch of individual challenges that made up a whole which turned out not to be greater than the sum of its parts.

One of my go-to games is Call of Cthulhu, and I find that it’s extremely important to be able to split up the group for the myriad of reasons listed above (mostly for dramatic/horrific tension, potential paranoia or information secrecy, to extend the amount of time characters can blame things on “Jeff is just seeing things”, and so on).

To me, the trick to having split-groups work is to still make them feel like they are working collaboratively. We need to ensure that the party still feels like that, a party. Don’t send half the group to the living room to play Super Smash Brothers for a half hour while you work out this intense role-playing scene. Frame every split in the larger context of the group story: “Jeff and Nancy go off to do X, while Sara and Mike stay here to do Y.” By treating each group’s sub-journey a part of the larger story, you minimize the compartmentalization of any particular fragment.

Cut back and forth between the parties, devoting a few minutes at a time to each, rather than completing an entire scene with one group. It’s harder to keep track of all the details this way, but you can keep characters interested in the next moment they get to act; you can kind of consider the separate groups in non-combat “initiative”, taking turns doing actions. I always, and this is especially good for CoC, like to switch at cliffhanger moments: for example, if two characters are exploring the basement while the others wait upstairs, I’ll follow the players in the basement until they open the laundry chute, then switch to upstairs and deal with them until they hear a thumping coming from the second floor, then reveal what is in the laundry chute and let the basement players go again. This way the players don’t have a chance to lose interest.

The other important thing is to know when splitting up is necessary. In real life, yes, it makes more sense to have half the players go to the library and half to the newspaper, but it honestly takes the EXACT SAME amount of time in terms of tabletop time. I think it should be rather easy to suspend your disbelief in these little things, such as non-threatening investigation or information gathering, in order to smooth along gameplay.

Furthermore, I have no qualms about specifically preventing the party from splitting up. I know there will be GMs out there who cry foul, but even in my current campaign I have specifically disallowed someone from going somewhere alone. A player wanted to go investigate a particular location in a creepy town as part of split-group investigation; I pulled that player aside, said “you should not go there alone, because it is dangerous and not good for the game” and she agreed. Later, all the players went there together. Did I betray some of the sandbox nature of the game and player freedom? Sure, definitely. But I probably would have relented if she said she still wanted to go despite my warnings. We just both knew that an hour-long solo adventure would not really be that fun for the whole group, so we opted against it.

This, like most GMing, is an exercise in picking your battles. Take a good look at the situation at hand: if splitting the party adds to the experience, then absolutely do it. If it takes away, don’t. If you can’t get it done without taking away, then you probably shouldn’t do it. There’s no shame in opting out if you can’t handle it. People will understand. Having a blanket policy is pretty weak though, there should be some reasoning behind it.

I think I’ll talk more about these little nitpicks next week and the idea of what adds and what detracts. Thanks for reading, as always.

2 thoughts on “The Inquisition: Splitting the Party

Add yours

  1. The only times this has ever been a problem in any of my groups, goes back toy our last post. The problem Player.

    Just walks away, no notice, and when you turn to ask him to check for traps/prep a spell, you get a smug little smile and the reply, ‘I’m not there, you can’t find me’. What a douche.

    Other than that, I’m with you, splitting up can be tons of fun if everyone knows the whys and wherefores.


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